letters in the internet : an epistolary love story

Thesis 6. The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.


John and Abigail Adams meet and fall in love. They marry. They have children. John builds up his law practice, kicks major at one of the most controversial court cases in history. Political strife calls for white men of wealth to stand up, and fight for liberty. John isn’t too wealthy, but he is white, and knows a speech act like none other. Life will have it that John goes to Philadelphia to participate in the makings of a revolution. Abigail stays home, tends to raising her and John’s children, upkeeps their two properties. To stay connected, John and Abigail write some of the most public, political, and romantic letters anyone throughout history will read.

John must go to France. Abigail must stay behind. They continue the only form of connection possible: writing letters. Time imposes upon this form of romantic correspondence. It takes months for their letters to reach one another. They must be sent in secret, with the hopes that the British army will not confiscate them. Abigail waits continually for word from John, fearing all the while he has been killed or has left her. Neither happens. Eventually, Abigail and John can be together again. Even though they spent nearly half of their marriage apart, they stayed in love for the rest of their lives. Letters helped to keep them together.


j and l are students. They meet over studying an occupation. j lives on one side of the country; l lives on the other. They befriend one another in academic camaraderie. Political oppression and surveillance impose upon them—upon everyone. j and l communicate over twitter and chat, but for their more in-depth and analytical work, they use encrypted email. They wonder in this age: can they even trust one another?

Despite the heavy burden of what could someday become censorship, they continue to communicate through modes that resist the government (and those more adept at circumventing technology) the ability from reading their communication. j and l just want privacy. They realize communication isn’t impenetrable—not entirely safe—but it is all they have. They want to get to know one another through sharing their work without being watched. l wonders: how 1700s fear of the British is this?

l begins writing letters to j as pdfs. She sends them to him via email. He reads thoroughly, responds thoughtfully. Time passes. j and l finally meet in person. This meeting leads them to fall fully in love. But l has to go back home, thousands of miles away. They are able to phone each other daily. Text whenever a thought of the other occurs. Email and twitter let them see their voices continually.

But their passion overtakes them; j and l want to see each other’s faces. The distance feels impressively apparent. They find encrypted video chat, and see one another that way. This helps.

l realizes how lucky they are, considering. Whereas John and Abigail only had letters, and a lot of time between them as well as distance, she and he can reach one another nearly instantaneously. They can constantly reiterate their affections as they feel them. l wonders: what would this romance be like if technology played no role in bringing them closer when they cannot be together?


Scholar Nancy Baym provides three ways of viewing our relationship with the internet and technological communications in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age: technological determinism, social construction of technology, and the social shaping of technology.

Technological determinism is the belief that machines change us. This ideology says that we are passive users of technology—that our devices are external agents that act upon us to change society. This ideology links itself to the Platonian notion that all uses of speech and communication that are not auditory are secondary, or lesser. This is where we get the digital dualist argument that communicating through technology makes one’s relationship less “real”. Technological determinists will say that whenever we pick up a device to communicate, it begins changing us. It changes our brain patterns. We have no choice but to conform to the device.

If this were true:

j and l would have never met one another, not online, not in person. Their inability to trust their communications would have made it so they only saw one another as false entities across the screen. Their words wouldn’t have registered as actual voice from the other; they would have believed that the whole of their communication was false.

All because they couldn’t see, hear, or touch one another through their interfaces.

But this argument would also apply to John and Abigail. Had they seen their epistolary correspondence as a false form of communication because, mygod! they have to use the technology of ink and paper to communicate, their marriage wouldn’t have lasted until old age. Abigail and John would have given up on one another just a few months in.

Baym says, “If negative outcomes can be traced to technological causes, then they can be eliminated with better technology. It is also, however, a disempowering perspective that positions people as powerless to stop those changes unless they invent new, better, or different technologies or eschew technology altogether” (27). A technological determinist argues that any relationship or friendship made online isn’t real. This allows them to say that any disagreement through technology isn’t real either. It puts people in passive roles where they can say “I just don’t like who you are on social media, but we can be friends irl” ; “She told everyone about [        ] on facebook, so it must not be THAT important!” ; “So-and-so broke up with me on the phone (or over email, etc), what a coward!” All of these scenarios, and any other we can conjure up, imply a passivity to our relationship with media communications.

This would be denying the social truths behind these speech acts, where media is just another—not lesser, but different—form of communicating between individuals or people.

Baym’s discussion of the social construction of technology provides a more interconnected relationship with humans and technology. She proposes that “social, economic, governmental, and cultural factors influence how people take up and use new media” (40). I mean, sure; those of us philosophically aware of the properties of speech acts can affirm that all social aspects of our lives imbed within the ways we communicate with one another. We understand that all we do occurs through forms of language: speech, type, writing, reading, code, image, touch, you name it. Every institution we have uses a form of communication to reach people, and to design the world.

This explains why John and Abigail had no choice but to write one another love letters—and that their letters reflected not just their feelings for one another (oh the aching pain of distance and the sincerity of true love) and the state of their household, but the political climate that determined how they could reach one another.

This also explains the realness of j and l’s friendship; they were able to meet and reach one another across great distance because, not despite, of new media technologies. Their work studying social movements was as much about how they met as why.

Then Baym throws down the realism gauntlet: social shaping of technology. Here is where she helps us really get to something:

“From the social shaping perspective, we need to consider how societal circumstances give rise to technologies, what specific possibilities and constraints technologies offer, and actual practices of use as those possibilities and constraints are taken up, rejected, and reworked into everyday life” (45).

No matter the era, technology occurs as a real participant in human lives. John and Abigail had ink and paper, the shipping industry to assist in mail delivery, and horse-drawn FedEx-like-buggy getting their letters to each other. This is what assisted their communications. But it also shaped the nature of their communications. John and Abigail were always aware that their handwritten transmissions could be intercepted at any moment’s notice. They wrote carefully, and critically to one another. The inability to protect their communications completely determined what it was they could say, and how they could say it.

So it would seem that j and l don’t have it much different now. Today we live in a society where encryption helps to keep communications private. Many use sock accounts and false identities in social networks to speak with one another in ways that do not grant infiltration into their lives. It is a bold move to “come out” and speak with one another as who we are to say what we want. This is not so much technology’s fault as it is definitely the institutional and government frameworks that control how we use technology.

And that is what it is right there. Baym, again:

“This approach concurs with social shaping in seeing both technology and society influences in the consequences of new media, but it is particularly concerned with the processes at play as new technologies move from being fringe (wild) objects to everyday (tame) objects embedded deeply in the practices of everyday life” (45).

When institutional oppressions, whether they are the British army, marketers scraping “meaning” from conversation, or the NSA’s interception of email correspondence, people will always work within the boundaries they have. Yet they will also create technologies to speak back to oppression, surveillance, and censorship.

People and technology will work together to create private spaces, public third places, and they will always find ways to stay together when they cannot be together. It is an interrelationship with who we are along with how we can speak. Every form of communication works within the technology it has to determine what can and should be said. None is more real than the other. They just are.

Also: there is always https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sneakernet


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